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Masks (1958) is a novel by one of the most prominent women writers in Showa period Japan, Enchi Fumiko. The novel wraps the reader with the feeling of coldness that is both elegant and repellent. One of the leading themes of the novel is Japan’s matrilineal heritage. It is transferred from generation to generation and now appears to be free from its subordination to the patriarchal ideology.
Historical Aspect of the Novel
For centuries Japanese women were intended to become good wives and mothers. They had to control their emotions, succeed in household duties, and satisfy all men’s desires. The only law they had to stick to was the law created by men.
The novel is the author’s attempt to highlight the changes that feminism and postmodernism brought into Japanese culture.
Character in the Book
The main character of the book is a well-known middle-aged poet and a woman of a hard destiny, Mieko Togano. She is an intelligent woman and fascinates everyone with the charm she possesses. His precious son dies in an avalanche disaster. She starts to manipulate her widowed daughter-in-law Yasuko who cannot contradict her mysterious power. Mieko manipulates the relationships between Yasuko and the two men in love with her. Manipulation is done to obtain a surrogate for the son that died. Mieko arranges numerous affairs to reanimate her son and revenge herself on her long-dead husband. She had to stay with a husband she hated and in the society she hated. She was in love with another man and gave birth to twins whereas her husband and his family were ignorant of this. Often Mieko is described as a witch, though she does not do anything that can be treated as supernatural.
The Setting and Time Line Used in the Book
The action takes place in the middle of the XX century in Japan. The author’s choice of time and setting is very appropriate as it contributes to the reader’s interest in the relationships between Japanese men and women during the sexual revolution and feminism that were spreading throughout the world. The author presents a sort of supernatural events that are placed in dreamlike, mythical settings. A pastime is used throughout the novel.
Japanese Definitions One Needs to Know:
- Onna men – masks;
- Kaidan – supernatural or ghost story;
- Miko – the image of the shamaness.
Philosophy and Cultural Information that Can Help Understanding the Book:
- It is preferable that the reader familiarizes oneself with the novel Tale of Genji (XI century) by Murasaki Shikibu. This story is focused on the life of a prince who, for lack of political support, is made a commoner. He then masters courtly arts and strategies and achieves control of the land. Genii’s romantic entanglements serve as a canvas for the narration. The fairy-tale elements of Shikibu’s narration are mixed with the author’s concerns for Genii’s love affairs. This is the most celebrated of the Heian classics. It was a source for Enchi’s imagination. But it gets Mieko’s own interpretation which helps her to reveal her relationships with a younger man and disclose the themes of resentment, manipulation, and revenge.
- The book explores the role of women in modern Japanese society and shows how it has changed. Therefore, one should get some insights into the position of the Japanese women in the past: women were hidden and taught to be “deep inside the house” (Fumiko 123). In the society strictly keeping to the well-established traditions, women were only shadows of their men. They were not allowed to give any hint of their personal identity and were always expected to be polite, inhibited, and subservient.
- The novel dwells on the problem of spirit possession. It investigates what it means to be possessed by the spirits of others. The novel’s central character speaks of Rokujo lady in the Tales of Genji:
Her soul alternates uncertainly between lyricism and spirit possession, making no philosophical distinction between the self alone and in relation to others, and is unable to achieve the solace of a religious indifference (Fumiko 54).
The book is concerned with a woman’s option of transcendence, religious indifference, or philosophical detachment.
Different Japanese Masks One Needs to Know for the Book:
The title of the novel highlights the illusion of liberation that has been created for women. Literally, it means female masks worn in the Noh theatre. Japanese women seem to have no expression; these are masks that hide them. But under masks, there are sadness, madness, and hatred. Masks help the women to conceal everything inside of them.
Every day they have to don different masks to adjust to the society they live in. The author describes her view on masks in such a way:
“I suppose Noh masks have such symbolic properties that everyone sees in them the faces of his own dead. Only the faces of the dead wear such frozen expressions.” (Fumiko 25)
The masks mentioned in the novel are:
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- Yes, Otoko – “’the Wasted Man’ mask; used to describe the old Noh actor dying of cancer.” (Fumiko 18);
- Magojiro – “A young woman like ko-omote, but one with greater femininity and the fully developed charms of someone older, a young woman at the very peak of her beauty.” (22);
- Zo no onna – “It was the visage of a coldly beautiful woman, her cheeks tightly drawn. The sweep of the eyelids was long, and the red of the upper lip extended out to the corners of the mouth in an uneven and involved line, curving at last into a smile of disdain. A haughty cruelty was frozen hard upon the face, encasing it like crystals of ice on a tree.” (23);
- Ryô no onna – “Ryô no onna, the finest mask in the Yakushiji collection, was a national treasure of such value that it was ordinarily kept hidden from view.” (25); “one who chafes at her inability to sublimate her strong ego in deference to any man, but who can carry out her will only by forcing it upon others — and that indirectly, through the possessive capacity of her spirit.” (52);
- Deigan – worn by a woman who suppresses her true demonic nature, the latter is expressed in the glints of gold in her eyes;
- Hannya – worn by a woman who has become demonic because of jealousy and lust;
- Masugami – “Her heavily rouged, camellia-bright lips were ripe with sensuality, and her face was the face of Masugami–the mask of a young madwoman which he had seen at the home of Yorikata Yakushiji [the noh actor].” (110);
- Fukai -“It’s not very old, but it’s one that Father was fond of. He often wore it in Sumida River and Mie Temple. He thought you would appreciate the sadness in its look, having lost your only child….Inside the box the carved image lay quietly with the yellowish hardness of a death mask. The long, conical slope of the eyelids, the melancholy, sunken cheeks, the subdued red of the mouth with its blackened teeth–all conveyed the somber and grief-laden look of a woman long past the age of sensuality….It’s called Fukai, and the name can be written either of two ways: with the characters for “deep well” or “deep woman.” It’s used in roles depicting middle-aged women, especially mothers. The Kanze school takes the name to mean a woman of “exceedingly deep heart” — that is, someone mature not only in years, but also in experience and understanding. My father had his own interpretation though. He liked to think of it as a metaphor comparing the heart of an older woman to the depths of a bottomless well–a well so deep that its water would seem totally without color.” (137); “Mieko was kneeling on the flower in the deepening dusk. She had lifted the mask Fukai from its box again, and was studying it in solititude. The pale yellowish caste of the mournful thin-cheeked mask in her hands was reflected on her face, the two countenances appearing faintly in the lingering daylight like twin blossoms on a single branch. The mask seemed to know the intensity of her grief at the loss of Akio and Harume–as well as the bitter woman’s vengeance that she had planned so long, hiding it deep within her…” (141).
The novel under consideration is a wonderful example of writings from the postmodern generation. The value of the book is in its exploration of feminism before it came widely known in Japan. It is a significant contribution to the disruption of the dominant power structure.
Fumiko, E. Masks. New York: Random House, 1983.